'I never thought I’d have cancer'

SINGAPORE - With her bubbly personality, few would have guessed that she once had a gruelling year-long battle with colon cancer.

Though it has been eight years since 63-year-old retiree Rita Tan's cancer went into remission, the day she got diagnosed is still fresh in her mind.

In October 2004, Miss Tan was admitted to the Accident & Emergency department at Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH) after feeling an acute pain in the left side of her body.

She brushed it off as food poisoning and was not too worried about it. But the doctor's test results showed that Miss Tan had stage-two colon cancer.

The news shocked her.

"I never thought I'd have cancer. I'm quite healthconscious and I go for regular check ups. In fact, I was given a clean bill of health earlier that year," she said.

Miss Tan also attended talks on cancer frequently as she enjoys "learning new things".

"I did not think it would happen to me," she said.

When the doctor broke the news to her, Miss Tan, who was working with a Christian organisation, worried about the time she had left.

"I was at a loss as to what to do.

I cried for a while," she said.

Positive outlook

Fortunately, her positivity helped her to pick herself up.

"I have to go on. The most important thing is to seek treatment, I told myself then," Miss Tan said.

Encouragement from her siblings helped her cope with the illness.

Her elder sister, whom she is closest to, despite a five-year age gap, patiently nursed her back to health.

Miss Tan would listen to instrumental music to calm herself down and sought comfort from prayers and other members of the True Way Presbyterian Church.

During her recovery, her pastor, Rev Tan Cheng Huat, visited her and served her communion as she was homebound.

Said Rev Tan: "Rita is a very joyous person. She was very positive despite the inconvenience because of her stoma pouch."

Miss Tan had to wear an ostomy pouch to collect her body waste after the operation.

But beneath the positivity, Miss Tan was actually struggling.

"It was difficult to cope with life with the pouch," she said, recalling an incident where it came loose and fell to the ground, creating a "real messy situation".

"I felt very down."

The experience ignited her desire to reach out to others in the same plight.

A month after her cancer went into remission, she started volunteering at the TTSH Colon Cancer Support Group, manning the its hotline.

Today, Miss Tan oversees the support group's operations and counsels patients face-to-face.

She hopes to inspire others the same way she was inspired in her first support group session nine years ago.

"At my first group session, I met colon cancer survivors of 10 years. It made me feel hopeful," she said.

The support group meets on the first Saturday of each month to share tips on how to cope with colon cancer.

Miss Tan also organises annual outings and year-end parties for members to bond and form an emotional support group.

Her efforts were recently recognised by the National Healthcare Group (NHG) and she was named one of the four Exemplary Patient Award winners.

The award recognises patients who have "gone beyond themselves to give back to fellow patients and the healthcare system", said NHG's group chief quality officer Nellie Yeo.

"Their feedback, contributions and generosity in giving their time and energy have made our institutions better for staff and patients alike.

"An example is Ms Tan, who provides a listening ear and emotional support to fellow cancer patients. We are proud to recognise her as one of our Exemplary Patients." When Miss Tan is not volunteering at the support group, she reads, listens to music or goes for walks.

"In the past, I would get irritated by small things.

But since I recovered from cancer, I've learnt to let go," she said.

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